RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
College basketball's biggest Sunday is just a few days away. And this weekend, the NCAA will reveal the teams in this year's tournament. As soon as Selection Sunday ends, the speculation begins: Who will be this year's Cinderella story? Though it could be we've already had this year's Cinderella story: a West Coast player quietly dominating and stacking the numbers.
NPR's Becky Sullivan reports.
BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: If you're looking for the best player in college basketball, you'll probably start here.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: And if you give space to Doug McDermott, he's going to knock it down. Jabari Parker for three.
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SULLIVAN: But unlike Doug McDermott, of Creighton; or Jabari Parker, of Duke, you won't find this guy on prime-time CBS or ESPN.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: He is absolutely a superstar.
SULLIVAN: ...or playing in front of a stadium-size crowd.
Here, on a sunny afternoon in Southern California, practicing his free throws, is the best player in the country.
ALAN WILLIAMS: Hello, I'm Alan Williams. I'm a junior center for the UCSB Gauchos.
SULLIVAN: Now, I should say there are a lot of ways to crown a player the best. It could be the guy who goes first in the NBA draft. It could be the best player on the best team. Alan Williams is neither. He won't even outright say he's had a great season.
WILLIAMS: I feel like I've done pretty well. Some stretches where I feel like I could have played a little bit better, and just stuff I need to improve on in the offseason.
SULLIVAN: But Alan's numbers are untouchable. There are more than 4,000 players in Division 1 men's basketball. Big Al, as his teammates call him, well, he's number two in the nation in rebounding, number 12 in scoring, and a mere number 36 in blocks.
KEN POMEROY: Just about every basketball skill you can think of, he's really good at.
SULLIVAN: That's Ken Pomeroy, a statistician who enumerates all of college basketball at KenPom.com.
POMEROY: And all these numbers he puts up are the numbers you would expect to come from somebody who is 6-10 or 6-11. Obviously he's 6-7, so being a huge shot-blocker and a great rebounder, and a guy who can draw a bunch of fouls in the paint, is definitely unique for somebody who's as short as he is.
SULLIVAN: So why's the media spotlight pointed elsewhere? Pomeroy says one problem is that the University of California Santa Barbara isn't exactly a basketball powerhouse.
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SULLIVAN: The blue banners on the arena walls, they celebrate NCAA tournament appearances, not championships. UCSB plays in the Big West Conference with schools like Long Beach State and Hawaii. Because of that, some people say Alan's stats are inflated. If the Gauchos were playing against tougher competition, they say, he wouldn't do as well.
Alan's coach Bob Williams - no relation - doesn't buy it.
BOB WILLIAMS: What was eye-opening was our very first game at UNLV against the returning the Mountain West defensive player of year, and Al abused him. I mean, flat-out, he just dominated the kid, and it wasn't even close.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: And Alan Williams leaves, and what a night for him, 9-of-19 from the floor. Twenty-one...
WILLIAMS: The coaches at that time, we were just looking at each other, shaking our heads, going wow.
SULLIVAN: Alan had 21 points that night against Nevada Las Vegas. A month later, he dropped 23 and 24 points on UCLA and Cal Berkeley. Big league schools with big arenas and big money - no problem.
A Player of the Year award might be a stretch, concedes Ken Pomeroy, the statistician who says he's obsessed with Alan.
POMEROY: But he definitely deserves more consideration than he's going to get, which is zero. I mean, numbers-wise, nobody really compares to him across the country.
SULLIVAN: If that makes Alan Williams the Cinderella story of the regular season, can he make UCSB the Cinderella team of the Big Dance? Well, he won't guarantee anything. To even make the NCAAs, the Gauchos have to win their conference tournament, which starts today with a game against Cal Poly. It tips off at noon, Pacific Time, and here's what I will guarantee: You won't find it on national TV.
Becky Sullivan, NPR News.